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New Minister Deirdre Hargey is committed to rebuilding Casement Park

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A computer generated image of the proposed redevelopment of the ground

A computer generated image of the proposed redevelopment of the ground

Big plans: Minister for Communities Deirdre Hargey

Big plans: Minister for Communities Deirdre Hargey

Freddie Parkinson

A computer generated image of the proposed redevelopment of the ground

The Casement Park saga has been going on for over a decade.

While football's Windsor Park and rugby's Kingspan Stadium have been redeveloped with the aid of government money, the GAA ground in west Belfast remains untouched having been hit by numerous problems and delays, including concerns from residents, planning approval being quashed, safety issues and the NI Executive being out of action for three years.

With the cost to build the stadium spiralling to an estimated £110m, there are fears it may never be constructed.

In her first major interview since becoming Minister for Communities and, in essence, Sports Minister, Sinn Fein's Deirdre Hargey tells Steven Beacom that the project will go ahead and that she wants the redevelopment to be underway by 2022.

Steven Beacom: So, where are we with Casement Park?

Sports Minister: When I came into the post, one of my first visits was to Casement Park. That was to give the intent on behalf of the Executive and my Department that we will see Casement Park developed. We are going through the business case at the moment but that can't be completely finalised until the planning outcome is known. Once that is known and it is a positive outcome, which I hope that it will be, we move to progress further and get the final costs. Then we will progress that through to the construction phase.

SB: How confident are you that the planning process will be successful? (Planning permission for a 38,000 capacity stadium was quashed in 2014 in a High Court legal challenge brought by some local residents. Revised plans were submitted in February 2017 with a reduced capacity of 34,000).

SM: Lessons have been learned from the judicial review process. There was a Safety Working Group established. On the back of that, there was a redesign of the stadium and that's partly why the costs have risen. Due to that redesign, the capacity was reduced. There were changes made in terms of the scope around the physicality of the stadium and the GAA extended their consultation period to 32 weeks rather than 16. All other processes have been followed. That will be an issue for the Department of Infrastructure but hopefully through the other end of this a planning process will be there. Whether there will be other legal challenges I don't know. I do imagine lessons have been learned.

SB: Are some of those lessons to do with the residents?

SM: I think lessons in terms of engagement, making sure statutory agencies are working together and in terms of going out to listen to people. The redesign says that people have been listening and at the same time there is a huge demand for this to be built. Antrim Gaels and Ulster Gaels have been waiting for this for a long time, indeed the GAA family right across Ireland. Within the New Decade New Approach document there is a commitment to deliver because this was part of a three-stranded programme. We delivered on Kingspan and Windsor and we can see the massive impact, not just to the sports but the engagement with surrounding communities. There is a big hope for this to be done and for people in a couple of years to see Casement up and running again.

SB: What about the expense? The original budget was £77m in 2012. Now another £33m is required. We're told the NI Executive doesn't have enough, so would that £33m not be better spent on health and education?

SM: In terms of the finance in the deal, there were commitments made. That deal was done by both the British and Irish governments and they haven't fully stepped up to the plate in terms of the commitments they made.

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Big plans: Minister for Communities Deirdre Hargey

Big plans: Minister for Communities Deirdre Hargey

Freddie Parkinson

Big plans: Minister for Communities Deirdre Hargey

SB: Is that both governments?

SM: Yeah, well, both governments, but the British government in terms of the Exchequer here made commitments within because it was essentially their deal in which parties then signed up to. There is a commitment across the parties in the need to deliver a regional stadia for Gaelic games. The rising cost has come due to the delay in the stadium, so there have been inflationary rises as a result of the six-year delay but there are important reasons for that. There was obviously a judicial review and a health and safety design team that was put together as a result of safety concerns. We have a duty to address public safety.

SB: Is £110m the limit for the new Casement Park?

SM: £110m is the expected cost now. Once we go into the procurement process we will know a more definitive cost. We await the outcome of planning because there may be certain stipulations within the planning.

SB: So it is possible the cost could be more than £110m?

SM: It could possibly but we don't know that yet. The £110m is what is there within the business case. It could be lower as well in terms of going through the procurement process. I don't have a crystal ball. I will be talking to Executive partners, the Minister of Finance (Conor Murphy) and the GAA through this process as it is a partnership between the two.

SB: Should the GAA pay more towards Casement? (The GAA were contributing £15m to the original £77m but have said they will pay no more despite rising costs).

SM: That will be part of the ongoing discussions. Obviously the GAA up to the current costs have put in money and it is nearly seen as a 20/80 split in terms of the finance around it. I have met the Ulster Council and the Antrim board. The Finance Minister has also had conversations. We will continue that and the GAA are keen to have those conversations also.

SB: Would you like the GAA to put more money in?

SM: We will look at that in terms of the business case and we will see what the final cost is and obviously where the money could come from.

SB: What year do you want it built?

SM: Physical construction takes a couple of years in terms of it being final. I would be looking at for the end of this mandate that we see real movement on this.

SB: The end of this mandate is when?

SM: Within two years.

SB: That will please those keen to have this resolved.

SM: Well, they have been waiting for it. Antrim have given up their grounds for almost a decade now. We know the contribution sport makes to communities. To have a stadium which young people can go to and aspire to play in will be unbelievable. In terms of the business community and the regeneration impact, it is much more than just a sports facility. It has a much broader impact. There is a duty on us as an Executive, myself as the Minister and the GAA that we deliver the vision they had and the vision we had for the Stadium programme.

SB: Is the ideal scenario for Casement to have an official opening by 2022?

SM: Well, it would be that we are well underway in terms of construction, that we are starting by that stage and we are moving to the next phase of construction. It will take some time. I suppose the existing facility needs to come down. That needs to be demolished first. We want to have the new facility up and running as quickly as possible.

SB: To be clear then, the construction would start in 2022?

SM: There will be movement by the end of this mandate on the development of Casement Park in terms of all the processes being in place.

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